Directed by Guy Ritchie. Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, James Fox, Hans Matheson, Geraldine James. (2009, PG-13, 128 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Dec. 25, 2009
When Edgar Allan Poe invented the literary detective genre in 1841 via a short story showcasing the adventures of ur-shamus C. Auguste Dupin, little did he know that his clever little Parisian "ratiocinator" would lead directly to the creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "consulting detective" Sherlock Holmes some 46 years later. The fictional Holmes first arrived at the scene of the crime exactly one year prior to the emergence of the very real Jack the Ripper. Fittingly, both fictional man and factual monster appeared in their own variations in A Study in Scarlet, and both turned out to be equally adept at selling periodicals while gaining permanent positions in popular culture. Over the years, Holmes – obsessive, possibly bipolar, and never less than a gentleman, even while prone to firing off guns and mainlining "medicinal" cocaine in the flat he shared with his friend and chronicler Dr. Watson – has been a cinematic staple. The character has been assayed by a veritable rogues’ gallery of actors including the legendary (and stodgy) Basil Rathbone, Nicol Williamson (in 1976's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which notably featured a young Robert Duvall as Dr. Watson), Robert Stephens (in Billy Wilder's vaguely homoerotic The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), and Christopher Plummer (in the excellent Holmes/Ripper face-off Murder by Decree, helmed by Bob Clark, of A Christmas Story). Now Guy Ritchie has reinvented the chilly, brainiac character as a tortured genius, ladies' man (sort of), and occasional backroom brawler. As played by Downey Jr. (an inspired casting choice that works in the film's favor), this incarnation is a post-millennial man of action, spurred on by a woman of equal action: his former love, Irene Adler (McAdams, looking suitably flouncy-tough as per Ritchie's ongoing worldview), who engages his services to locate a missing midget. With Watson (Law, another spot-on bit of casting) at his side, Holmes uncovers a satanic plot that takes him from the lowliest subterranean hellholes to the (literally) highest levels of Parliament. His quarry here is one Lord Blackwood (a stern, unflappable Strong), a sort of Victorian terrorist with Bond-villain dreams. The game is afoot and Ritchie, who overdosed on his own testosterone with last year's riotously dull RocknRolla, manages to mostly restrain his more florid directorial flourishes while creating a CGI London so benighted and soot-heavy you can practically smell it. This is Downey Jr.'s film all the way, and while literary traditionalists and Baker Street Irregulars (of which I am one) may find this Holmes’ penchant for face-crunching fisticuffs and back-alley chases a sad sop to the action-jaded audiences of the 21st century, the actor's more masculine interpretation of the character is never anything less than startling, fresh, and altogether entertaining. Here's hoping that younger members of the audience will seek out Conan Doyle's original stories to further explore Holmes' official amanuensis, Dr. John Watson, whose brilliant case studies regarding his friend, roommate, and fellow rationalist are the stuff dreams are made of.